The Walking Dead is a show that I appreciate more than like. It is fantastically put together, crafted by total professionals who know exactly how to do an hour long mini-movie, and when I watch it I can recognize that, yes, that’s good acting and good cinematography and good editing and good effects work.
Where it fails for me is that I just don’t care about the characters enough to want to keep coming back because for all of the craft that goes into creating the look and feel of the show, none of the characters beyond the Sherrif Trio (Rick, Shane, Rick’s wife Lori whom Shane was sleeping with while they thought Rick was dead) are anything but perfunctory, flat creations that fill out narrative space without connecting emotionally with the audience.
And by audience I mean me.
To defend Walking Dead, this is clearly Sheriff Rick’s story and so things that happen tend to happen because of Rick, either because he does something that sets things in motion or because things happen so they can ultimately spin back for his reaction to it. This is problematic because Rick is such a Captain America that there’s never any real doubt about what he’s going to do; in fact, it comes as a huge, welcome surprise when, during the final episode he gets drunk and lets his guard down to a total stranger, admitting he’s got actual doubts.
The show gets off on a tough foot because, at this point, Waking Up In Zombie-Devastated World story is almost as played out as Superhero Origin Story. Rick is a cop. Rick gets shot. Rick falls into a coma. Rick wakes up. The world has gone to crap. He stumbles around acting like he’s never seen 28 Days Later or Zombieland or any other post-apocalyptic movie.
And yet we have to watch it play out over 70 agonizing minutes because it’s not enough for a regulation-sized episode to tell us a story we’ve probably all seen before. It’s not a bad show, but it is a predictable one as Rick realizes the world is screwed up, gets his introduction to the Rules of Zombie Behavior, and decides he’s going after his wife and kid. That he’s been in the hospital for so long his leg muscles have shrunken means he stumbles around for most of the 70 minutes.
Walking Dead. Get it? Clever plays on the title is the only humor you’re going to find in this grim show.
Where episode 1 gets really good is also where it hurts the rest of the series. Rick gets attacked by a man and his kid who don’t know if he’s infected or not but they have to suspect he isn’t because they take him home, put him in bed, and tie him up. The dad, Morgan, brings the emotional impact of what’s happened to the world home to Rick and the viewer. Here’s a guy who is struggling to adjust to the zombiefied world, and who can blame him? He’s holed up in a house that isn’t his, escaping during the day to scavenge for food and supplies and then comes home to a boarded up house to wait out the zombies at night.
The zombies are active 24/7 but seem to be more active at night, according to the dad, who suggests their greater nightly activity is because of the heat. I love that explanation because it shows the creators are thinking about zombies and not just using them as bad guys.
When Rick can go out and get active again they go back to Rick’s house where he decides his wife and kid must still be alive because the photos are missing. Morgan nods knowingly: "I was getting provisions together and the wife was packing pictures. Women. Pffft. Totally unprepared for the zombie apocalypse with their silly emotional attachments.”
Rick leaves, giving the dad a walkie talkie and telling him he’s headed for Atlanta and the dad can try to contact him at sunrise every morning but only at sunrise because they want to save the batteries.
Are you kidding me? Sunrise? That’s one of those decisions you make as a writer because it sounds cool but it’s totally impractical if you actually want to contact the other person at some point. How about saying you’ll turn the walkie on at, I don’t know 6 AM each morning? 7 AM? 8:46? That would make sense, but that might mean there’s actual contact between the two and what the show really wants is to be able to take Rick and sit him in tall grass on the side of a big hill, looking out at the world as the new day’s rays start to soak the landscape, and make big dramatic speeches into the walkie talkie in his Southern drawl about how tough it is to survive with zombies everywhere.
After Rick leaves, Morgan sits upstairs in the house with a high-powered rifle, looking for his wife in the scope. He starts shooting, taking out one zombie after another in an attempt to draw his wife out. Why he has to do this in the middle of the day when the wife has a bad habit of showing up at the house at night is beyond me, but it’s such a great scene I’ll forgive it. It can’t be easy blowing your wife’s head off with a rifle, even if it’s not really your wife anymore but a zombie stumbling around in her dead body.
Morgan finally finds her, scopes her, and --
Can’t pull the trigger.
He can’t bring himself to do it and this is why he’s still stuck in this town instead of moving on to Atlanta, where he believes actual help can be found at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) building. It’s a wonderfully emotional scene about the difficulty in moving on emotionally even when logically you know it’s the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, there’s not another moment in the series that can match the intensity of this scene and that leaves me feeling unfulfilled by what comes after it. There is an emotional scene where Andrea’s sister Amy gets bitten by a zombie and she spends the night with her, waiting for her sister to come back to life as a zombie so she can put a bullet through its brain, but by then we’ve seen so much of the zombie attacking and killing that it doesn’t carry the same impact.
What the show really needed at that moment was someone dying by stupid chance unrelated to zombies to show the fragility of life even more than it needed zombies stumbling into their little camp.
Atlanta blows because there’s zombies everywhere. He gets trapped and saved by a kid. Kid takes Rick back to his group, then back to their encampment where his wife and son are holed up.
One the one hand, coincidental much?
On the other: I'm not going to get on the show’s case too much for jumping to the inevitable reunion.
The wife, Lori (played by Sarah Wayne Callies, the wife with the open marriage on House), has moved on and is having a secret affair with Shane, Rick’s former partner. They do the sexing in the woods and the sneaky kissing in Lori’s tent so no one sees them because, well, I guess to protect Lori’s son, Carl. Their affair (is it really an affair if Lori thinks Rick is dead?) is the one bit of real human drama in the show.
Even here the show doesn’t spend too much time going through it, which is good. Too much might make it melodramatic and the show prefers to slow-burn this subplot in the background. I’m not asking for it to turn into Desperate Housewives, but it’s got to give us something to hang our emotional hats on or else it’s just a show about faceless people trying to survive in Zombie America. That might work for an episode or two, but it’s not going to sustain my interest.
The best twist of this subplot happens after Rick gets back and we find out that Shane told Lori that Rick was dead. Once Rick comes back, Lori instantly stops the affair, which was in doubt for a moment because we know from the opening scene that Rick and Lori were having marital issues. In the final episode a flashback shows Shane in the hospital, trying to get Rick free as the zombies are stumbling through the hallways and the army is machine-gunning anyone moving. Rick is all connected to machines and Shane freezes. He honestly thinks Rick is dead (even though he doesn’t really check all that closely) but still places a bed outside the door to keep zombies from getting in and having dinner on his buddy’s flesh.
What a pal.
I wonder if he knew then he was going to try to make it with his buddy’s wife.
Shane gets Lori and Carl out of the city by telling her Rick is dead. We don’t see that scene but we don’t need to. It’s enough to know that Shane honestly thought Rick was (probably) dead, so we don’t think he’s a complete dirtbag. Or at least we don’t think this until he tries to get Lori to have sex with him again and she has to scratch his face to keep him off.
Rick never finds out about the affair because, I don't know why. Because he’s such a straight arrow that he can’t even consider Lori might have been laying down with his former pal, I suppose. There’s a great scene where Rick and Lori lay together for the first time and she’s looking the other way, crying, and tells him, "I really did think you were dead" as way of apologizing for what she’s done without coming clean about what she’s done.
It’s a wonderful scene and the only one that comes close to matching Morgan failing to pull the trigger.
So why is there no resolution?
Like I said, for all the show’s technical greatness it screws the narrative pooch a few times. Since this is the one real long-term subplot you would think it would come to a head before the season is out, but it does not. Instead, we get Shane’s weepy attempt to force himself on Lori and then people wondering at breakfast about the scratches on his face. Shane says he did it himself and people think that's weird but no one presses him on it because everyone was drunk the night before, and questions might mean Rick will find out.
The camp community heads to the CDC where one scientist, Jenner, is working on a cure. The group freaks out when Jenner tells them the building is going to shut down and burn everything inside to a crisp. Thanks, Doc. Before they know this, however, they all take a shower and get drunk.
It’s the little things.
The influence of Stephen King is everywhere. The show’s driving cinematic force is Frank Darabont, who made a career adapting King’s stories for the big screen. Darabont uses actors he’s used before in those projects, including the always awesome Jeffrey DeMunn, who pops up in several King adaptations. (DeMunn is so good playing the Stephen King Maine Man that it’s disappointing to find out he was born in Buffalo.) The lead character of Rick, too, feels ripped from a Stephen King story with his high morals and devotion to his son. If this was an ABC mini-series instead of an AMC mini Tim Daly would be the lead, because he played this same basic character in the excellent Storm of the Century.
Which also starred Jeffrey DeMunn, by the way.
Walking Dead has the rhythms of a long-form King mini-series such as The Stand, but where it misses the King lesson is that it doesn’t adequately develop minor characters. King is the master at giving everyone emotional motivation that propels them in the story, but here it’s as if the show just went, "It’s the Zombie Apocalypse. What other motivation do you need?"
I dunno. How about we get to know Andrea’s sister before Andrea offs her? Maybe that will make us care. Unfortunately, the show is almost unrelenting in its focus on the survivors, forgoing narrative thrills for survivor’s guilt.
There are good characters here. That's frustrating. Unfortunately, the characters all have one note that is supposed to carry them through the rest of the show. Glenn is clever. Daryl is a racist, but not as racist as Merle. Ed is abusive. Real follow-up to these basic types is lacking.
The subplot about leaving Daryl’s brother Merle is left behind like Merle. Look, there’s a story here about having to work with people you don’t want to work with because the Zombie Apocalypse forced you to associate out of your comfort zone, but the show doesn’t spend any time going through it. It just lets it sit in the background. While it’s commendable that the show doesn’t force this down our throat like an afterschool special, it favors the plot over the characters, and the story here isn’t all that interesting to survive without us caring about these characters.
This isn’t something we haven’t seen before.
Maybe we haven’t seen a zombie story done as a long-form serial before but, honestly, Walking Dead does not provide a whole lot of new twists and turns to make the story sufficient on its own to keep me interested.
It’s not a good thing when the points that register with me the most are negative, but this isn’t to say it's a bad show. It is disappointing because of the lack of character development beyond the leads, but I didn’t hate watching it. This show looks like a movie and it is largely successful at crafting stand-alone episodes that still work to tell a larger story. It’s technically sound, but the lack of emotional connection leaves me feeling cold. But if one watches television simply to have something pretty to look at, it works.